You've got these big cities who pay big bucks for lobbyists, and taxpayer dollars at that. Some of these smaller cities miss out because they just don't have the money to go out and pay big dollars to get these lobbyists to help them out. —Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield
SALT LAKE CITY — A state lawmaker wants to prohibit government entities, including the Utah Transit Authority, from contracting with lobbyists to represent them on Capitol Hill.
Rep. Paul Ray introduced a bill Thursday to make it illegal for counties, cities and towns to use tax dollars for lobbying public officials. He said a Deseret News/KSL-TV report last year on the large amount of money UTA spends on influencing lawmakers is among his reasons for drafting HB383.
The Clearfield Republican said he's also troubled about the advantage large cities that can afford lobbyists have over small cities that can't.
"You've got these big cities who pay big bucks for lobbyists, and taxpayer dollars at that," he said. "Some of these smaller cities miss out because they just don't have the money to go out and pay big dollars to get these lobbyists to help them out."
Ray also said he was "astounded" by the amount of money UTA spends on lobbying state legislators.
UTA spends more on in-state lobbying than any local government entity. From 2008 through September 2012, UTA contracts with state lobbyists totaled nearly $1.3 million, according to figures provided by the agency. On average, it pays out about $260,000 a year.
UTA is considered a quasi-government agency, which sets it apart from cities and towns. It does, however, receive local tax money for some of its projects. Ray said he believes his bill would include UTA but would have to do more research to know for sure.
UTA says it's accountable to 70 cities and five counties, as well as the state and federal governments, and has a responsibility to talk with them on a daily basis.
"The majority of our lobbying efforts are spent in communicating with these groups, answering their questions, providing them data on our operations and working together to plan for the future. Lobbying allows us to keep our stakeholders educated and informed," according to a statement from UTA.
Those efforts, UTA said, have made it possible to accelerate Wasatch Front transit projects, including four new light-rail lines and a commuter-rail train.
"This has a direct benefit on the quality of life of our community and would not have been possible without this ongoing dialogue with elected officials," according to the agency.
Attempting to ban cities, counties and other government entities from lobbying on Capitol Hill is not new, said Brent Gardner, CEO of the Utah Association of Counties.
"It's been around here before. It's never passed, obviously," he said.
Gardner doesn't see it as an issue of fairness. Counties, he said, get their voices heard through the association. But counties that hire their own lobbyists might feel disadvantaged by a law prohibiting that practice, he said.
House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said the proposal has come up several times over the years without success.
"We have a new Legislature, and it may be time to have the discussion again," she said.
Ray said he knows the bill won't go over well with local governments and lobbyists.
"I'll get a ton of pushback from people that like to hire lobbyists to come here," he said. "I won't be very liked on the Hill both from the lobbyist side and the municipality side."